Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos

examined by and © Mark Alexander

From Jack Kirby Collector #24

Enter The Howling Commandos

"There was reality in the stories because of my own war experiences. Sgt. Fury had the essence of military life in it."—Jack Kirby

The story goes like this: One day in late 1962 Stan Lee was trying to convince his skeptical uncle (publisher Martin Goodman) that Marvel's new-found success was due to the fact that he and Jack Kirby had developed a new comic-style which Lee claimed would work in any genre. To prove his point, Stan bet that they could make a hit even with an outdated war-theme and a "horrible title." The result was Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, a Kirbyesque trek through the battlefields of World War II that was dubbed "The War Mag for People Who Hate War Mags."

Jack Kirby was the obvious choice to illustrate the series. Having tackled combat themes before (see Boy Commandos, Foxhole, Warfront, and Battle), he was able to handle the job with ease and enthusiasm. The commandos that Jack created for Sgt. Fury were colorful characters, startling for their brazen acknowledgement of ethnicity, whose diverse backgrounds formed a microcosm of America itself.

Among their ranks were: Timothy "Dum-Dum" Dugan, a huge, derby-domed Irish-American; Isadore "Izzy" Cohen, a master-mechanic from Brooklyn and the first-ever Jewish comics hero; Dino Manelli, a handsome Italian-American who was also a Hollywood star back in the states (clearly based on Dean Martin); "Rebel" Ralston, an ex-jockey from Kentucky with a pronounced southern accent; "Junior" Juniper, the Ivy Leaguer and eager beaver of the group; and Gabriel Jones, a trumpet-playing jazzman who was Jack and Stan's first (pre-Panther) Black hero. At a time when civil rights was a hotly-contested issue, Kirby and Lee (without concern for sales in the South) showed exactly where they stood on segregation by including a Black soldier in Fury's squad. They were, of course, taking artistic license with this concept; having both served during World War II they knew that the US Army had been segregated at the time. (Fury's anachronistically-integrated squad was not an entirely unique concept; DC's Sgt. Rock, which originated in 1959, featured a Black soldier named Jackie Johnson.) In any event, Gabe's inclusion in the Howlers was a bold move, and when Jones appeared colored pink in the first issue, Lee was obliged to send the color separation company a detailed memo to make it clear that Gabe Jones was a Black man.

This motley melange of misfits whose ferocious battle cry of "WAH-HOO!!" earned them the title "Howling Commandos" was led by Nicholas Joseph Fury, a cigar-chomping, tough-talking Sergeant whose trademarks were a five-o'clock shadow and a perpetually-ripped shirt. A product of the Great Depression, Fury was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen by his widowed mother, his father (World War I pilot Jack Fury) having died in combat. Fury was a classic Dead-End Kid. He frequented pool halls, got into scrapes, and worked as infrequently as possible. His life turned around when he joined the parish of Chaplain Lewis Hargrove. Fury became best friends with Hargrove's younger brother who was subsequently killed at Pearl Harbor. To avenge his friend's death at the hands of the Axis powers, Fury enlisted in 1941, endured basic training at Fort Dix, and served as a Sergeant in the European Theater of Operations leading the Howlers.

The supporting characters in SFAHHC include: Captain "Happy Sam" Sawyer, a bellowing, no-nonsense C.O.; Pam Hawley, Fury's love interest; Baron Strucker, Nick's nefarious Nazi-nemesis; and Sgt. "Bull" McGiveney, Fury's loud-mouthed rival whose squad would tangle with the Howlers (and always lose) at the drop of a hat. In a mere eight issues, Jack and Stan had established a cast potent enough to keep the book rolling for almost two decades.

All the bad guys in SFAHHC were (what else?) Nazis; all were named Hans, Fritz, or Otto, and all were ruthless, cold-blooded Teutonic killers. This one-dimensional stereotyping (by Lee) was pointedly at odds with the rich characterization in the rest of the book. Amazingly, Flo Steinberg (Marvel's Gal Friday) recalls that one reader was so incensed by the magazine's anti-Nazi slant that he wrote a letter threatening to kill the entire Bullpen. The FBI was called in, but nothing came of the scare. Clearly, Marvel's progressive attitude didn't delight everyone.

As for the plots, it was mostly Fury leading his men on one impossible raid after another (the title of SF #9, "Mission: Capture Hitler" says it all). Sometimes the book seemed like a Marvel super-hero comic, sometimes like a war movie, and sometimes like Kirby's own up-close and personal war experiences. Whatever the mood, the Kirby-Lee issues, particularly #4-7 and 13, were generally outstanding, even by today's standards. Quite an accomplishment, considering Jack's workload at the time.

Eight Two-Fisted War Stories (Sgt. Fury #1-7 & #13)

Lee and Kirby sought to infuse their new war comic with the unique characterization (Stan's) and the sheer kinetic energy (Jack's) which had worked so well in the Fantastic Four. As a result, the early issues of SFAHHC (inked by Dick Ayers) read like Marvel super-hero stories, a premise which would be abandoned by the fourth issue. Realism went out the window in scenes where a parachuting Dum-Dum blasts a Nazi plane out of the sky with a grenade (SF #1, May 1963) and holds off an entire enemy squad by hurling rocks at them (SF #2, July 1963). Worth noting, though, are the harrowing concentration camp scenes in the second issue. Jack and Stan, both Jewish, weren't about to shy away from the subject of genocide. In one chilling panel Kirby depicts emaciated P.O.W.s, and in another we see what is clearly a gas chamber. The next issue, "Midnight At Massacre Mountain"(SF #3, Sept. 1963), is notable for a cameo appearance by major Reed Richards of the O.S.S.. From this point on, the writing would take a quantum leap.

With "Lord Ha-Ha's Last Laugh" (SF #4, Nov. 1963) the series really takes off. The first surprise is that George Roussos (as "Bell") takes over on inks, and his admittedly rushed delineation looks (in my opinion) just right for this magazine, whereas it generally failed in Kirby's super-hero books. In this issue, Fury meets Lady Pamela Hawley, a young Red Cross volunteer born to English nobility and their fourteen-issue romance begins. The chemistry between these two was by far the most interesting that Lee had developed to date. Stan's usual spin on romance (e.g. Blake/Foster, Summers/Grey, and Murdock/Page) had both protagonists secretly longing for each other while neither dared to tell the other. It got to be a drag very quickly. By contrast, Fury and Hawley were up front about their feelings for each other, and the fact that their personalities were totally opposite (he, rough and from the wrong side of the tracks; she, sophisticated and high-born) gave their coupling a unique slant. With Pam's death (SF #18, May 1965), Fury acquired the same type of scarred psyche that Steve (Captain America) Rogers had, both having lost a dear friend to the war.

Kirby drew the cover and this splash page (and oddly enough, also the last page) for Sgt. Fury #18. The only other instances where this rarity occurred were in Avengers #14 and X-Men #17. All characters ™ and © Marvel Entertainment, Inc.

Another major event takes place at the end of Sgt. Fury #4. "Junior" Juniper, the Howler with the least potential in terms of character development, became the first-ever Marvel Universe hero to be killed. Today that's no big deal but in 1963, comics heroes simply didn't die; not permanently, anyway. Suddenly, with the death of "Junior" Juniper, the series acquired some real cachet. It now played like a true-life war drama where people got killed and never came back. You wondered who would be next. (Unfortunately, in 1965 Stan wrote a SFAHHC story set in the Korean War which ended the suspense. Obviously, no more Howlers would die in World War II.)

In between Sgt. Fury #4 and 5, a modern-day Nick Fury appeared in the pages of Marvel's flagship magazine (Fantastic Four #21, Dec. 1963). Fury is now a Colonel in the C.I.A. (he was promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant in Korea, then after spying for France in Vietnam during the 1950s, he was booted up to Colonel). In this issue he teams up with the FF to defeat a villain called The Hate Monger who (implausibly) turns out to be Adolf Hitler. The story doesn't amount to much; it was mainly a stepping-stone that the writers used to move Fury into a surprising new context (more on this later). The next appearance of the modern-day Fury would show him with a new look. During World War II, a grenade shattered the bones around his left eye, damaging the optic nerve. This would cause him to gradually lose most of the vision in that eye, requiring Fury to don an eyepatch sometime after this story took place.

Every great hero needs an equally great villain, and in "At The Mercy Of Baron Strucker" (SF #5, Jan. 1964) Fury found his. Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker, the ultimate Nazi, was to Fury what Doom was to the FF and what Magneto was to the X-Men; an arch-villain so magnificently evil that reader demand would dictate his return time and again. A Prussian aristocrat with a monocle, a cigarette holder and a dueling scar, Strucker was Fury's natural adversary. He regarded the American Sergeant as an inferior savage from the lower classes, and in later issues Strucker would lead a six-man "blitzkrieg squad" who were Nazi counterparts to Fury's men. (Several years later during his brilliant stint on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jim Steranko found a way to rekindle this decades-old rivalry. It was both a stroke of genius and obvious on Steranko's part to have the head of Hydra unmask himself as Baron Strucker.)

The next issue, "The Fangs Of The Desert Fox" (SF #6, Mar. 1964), was a morality tale. Dino Manelli, injured in a drill, is replaced by racist/bigot George Stone-well. When Stonewell joins the Howlers on a raid against Nazi Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel, the dreaded "Desert Fox," he blows the mission because he won't cooperate with Izzy (a Jew) and is shot by the Germans. Risking his own life, Izzy carries the wounded Stonewell to safety, and when a life-saving blood transfusion is needed, only Gabe has Stonewell's blood type. Stonewell awakens, devastated to learn that he owes his life to a Black man and a Jew. Stories like these are what made the early Marvel comics so timely and so impossibly good.

In "The Court Martial of Sgt. Fury" (SF #7, May 1964) we find Fury, who is suffering from amnesia, facing a court martial and possibly a firing squad for reasons he can't recall. A truly different type of war story emerges here. The only action is in the courtroom, and a lesser artist couldn't possibly have pulled it off, but years of doing romance comics had taught Kirby how to draw a dramatic, compelling story even when no action was involved. That knowledge served him well in this issue.

To ensure that Fury's thirteenth issue wouldn't be unlucky, Kirby and Lee reunited for "Fighting Side By Side With Captain America And Bucky" (Dec. 1964). It was to be Jack and Stan's last hurrah in the pages of Sgt. Fury. Although Dick Ayers had penciled issues #8-12, Lee wasn't about to let anyone but Cap's creator handle the Silver Age debut of Bucky Barnes. The magnificent Kirby/Stone cover immediately conveys that this issue is fundamentally a Captain America thriller with the Howlers as guest-stars in their own magazine. Despite this, the sparks really fly and the seeds of a long-term Cap/Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D. alliance were sown in this superb issue (inked by Dick Ayers).

Thus ended Jack and Stan's tenure on "The War Mag For People Who Hate War Mags." Jack pulled out, Ayers took his place, and Lee soon turned the writing chores over to Roy (The Boy) Thomas. Very soon SFAHHC became more and more like Sgt. Rock; in other words, just another war mag for people who love war mags.

Was Nick Fury Jack Kirby?

The amount of time that Kirby reportedly spent telling (and re-telling) war stories indicates what an indelible impression World War II must have had on him. Did he feel so close to his subject matter in this series that he (consciously or not) created the main character in his own image? Was Nick Fury Jack Kirby?

Both men's names and facial features are strikingly similar, and they both loved cigars. In SF #1, Lee describes Fury as being six-foot two-inches tall, but if one looks at the drawings, Fury appears to be (like Jack) a stocky man of only average height. On the other hand, it's important to note that ex-Army Sergeant Stan Lee had also served during World War II. He had the same rank as Fury, and he too loved cigars. Stan was definitely closer to 6'2" than Jack, and some of Lee's catch-phrases like "Face Front!" and "Hang Loose!" (the types of which Fury bellowed at his men) were admittedly inspired by his own Army service. In the final analysis, both writer and artist undoubtedly tried to infuse some of themselves into Sgt. Fury, and as a result, he came out as a heroic amalgamation of both men.

The Twilight of the Howling Commandos

"I was intrigued by the idea of having two magazines featuring Nick Fury, one dealing with his exploits during World War II and the other bringing him up to the present—but doing what?"—Stan Lee

The answer that Stan sought came from television, where The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had premiered the previous Fall. And so it came to pass that Sgt. Fury traded in his ripped shirts for an eyepatch and became Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel's answer to James Bond (Strange Tales #135, Aug. 1965). S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage group, was short for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division. Fury was both its director and powerhouse operative. (For Kirby art, see issues #135 and #141-143.) In June 1968, Nick Fury, AOS got his own book, and for a short time he enjoyed the status of starring in two Marvel publications simultaneously. NFAOS eventually went into reprint, and folded after only 18 issues; in Sept. 1989 however, the series made a comeback. Fury's career has had its ups and downs; he's been subjected to an "Infinity Formula" to retard his aging, and in 1995 he was supposedly shot dead by the Punisher. Still, it's a safe bet that as long as there's a Marvel Universe, Nick Fury will exist in it somewhere.

The World War II-era Howlers, however, are long gone. After an 18-year run, SFAHHC was finally laid to rest (SF #167, Dec. 1981). "Junior" Juniper was replaced by Percy Pinkerton, a British soldier who added even more ethnic diversity to the squad (two other post-Kirby Howlers, Tim Cadwallader and Eric Koenig, came later). Reb, Dino, and Izzy lived at least until the late 1960s; we know this because they served in Vietnam (SF Annual #3, Aug. 1967). Dum-Dum and Gabe both became high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, faithfully serving under Fury as they'd always done. Pam died in issue #18, and the loud-mouthed "Bull" McGiveney ended up being shot to death by his own men (okay, so I'm guessing).

It seems doubtful that we'll ever see a revival of Kirby's Howling Commandos. War comics just aren't as popular as they once were, and without trying to editorialize, maybe that's a good sign. Still, as long as modern-day World War II stories like Saving Private Ryan continue to capture the imaginations of millions (and as long as little boys continue to play "Army"), the Howling Commandos will live on. WAH-HOO!!

(The author would like to thank Les Daniels, Gerard Jones, Will Jacobs, David Penalosa, Ron Goulart, Harry Abrams, Jeff Rovin, and Paul Sassienie, without whom this article wouldn't have been possible.)

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